Our mind seems to work in a strange manner. As I sat in silence on that fateful day, waiting for an assault that surely would come, I tried to remember happier times so that I might keep what small spirit I still had. But instead of remembering happy times, I suddenly remembered my first battle.
I had cold sweat all over my face and neck, and I threw up after the battle. But I was not the only one to show such signs of sickness. I was very young then and newly invested with the esteemed knighthood of Gondor, as were several other young men around me, who were at that moment looking not so esteemed. Some of them threw up, most of them had a faraway look in their eyes, all of us were ashen-faced.
We had our first real battle the day before and it had lasted a whole night and a whole day. My company was a part of the guard stationed at Cair Andros. We had fought several times during our training stage, but those had been small skirmishes. A band of stray Orcs, a small company from Harad; nothing more. But my company was sent to strengthen the forces in Osgiliath, and finally we had our first real battle. We had been warned that we would perhaps be outnumbered, but still we had been shocked. I had never imagined there could be so many Orcs in one place, I had not even thought there were so many Orcs in the whole Middle-earth! And there were also Men among them, Men who had become the slaves of Mordor. Gondor won the battle, Osgiliath was not breached, but the battle was ugly and we had lost many men.
The more seasoned soldiers did not look as shaken as I and my young comrades did. Then as I looked around, something caught my attention. I saw the Steward's son among those who were piling the bodies of their dead comrades to be transported for burial. Faramir, the second son of the Steward Denethor, was about my age and was among the young men who had been recently accepted into the cavalry together with me.
I had not been closed to Faramir, he was too quiet for my liking. If I may be honest, I did not regard the quiet young lord highly. Several times I had seen Faramir reading a book or a scroll during our scarce leisure time. Sometimes I could hear the man humming while reading. I found it hard to reconcile that picture of a fair-faced young lord reading poetry at leisure with my ideal of a warrior's valour. I had heard much of Faramir's skill with the bow and the sword (and had seen him practicing one or two times, which served to prove what I heard), but what is so great about it? It is only right that a Steward's son should have a greater skill than others, for he had the best masters and the best training. Yet a great skill does not inevitably prove one's valour.
But that day I had for the first time seen the Steward's son in a battle. As far as I knew, it was also his first real battle. During the battle I had seen Faramir smiting many foes with deadly strikes. It had surprised me then. As I pondered on that while sitting with a terrible lurch in my stomach, I must admit that Faramir was nothing if not valiant, even though he liked to sing the lays.
As I surveyed the still face (though pale) of the Steward's son piling the dead bodies in a wain, my surprise grew greater. I supposed Faramir did not throw up as I and several others did. And that still, quiet face! He is really the son of Denethor, I thought. I thought of helping those tending the dead, but I did not trust myself. I did not want to throw up twice in a day. The bodies were badly hacked; Orcs did not fight nicely. I took several deep breaths and walked to where the wounded soldiers gathered. I supposed aiding the wounded should be less frustrating than seeing the hacked bodies.
Later that night, we all gathered around warm fires in the backyard of the garrison while partaking a late supper. I saw Faramir sitting in front of a tent, conversing with the Captain. After a moment the Captain left him, and Faramir remained there alone.
After a moment hesitation I walked to Faramir's place. He raised his head as I came near, but said nothing. I too said nothing and sat beside him. It was only then, when I looked at the man from a close space, that I could see a deep sadness in his eyes, though his face was calm.
I went straight to say what I had come to say. "I owe you an apology, Faramir."
Faramir looked at me. "I do not remember you committed any wrongdoings against me, Haldan," he said.
"No wrongdoing, perhaps, but surely some wrong judgments," I replied. "I admit with regret that I have judged you not so valiant just because I saw you with your book of lays."
There was a ghost of smile in Faramir's lips. "You are not the first to think so, and will not be the last," he said, "but surely this does not require an apology? A man is free to think whatever he pleases about another man, as long as he treats him with respect. And this you always do me, I deem. I have no grudge against you."
I had treated him civilly – after all he was the son of my liege lord – but I had not always hidden my rather low opinion of him. Once I and some fellows laughed at his love of lays and songs, and I could swear he heard few lines of our chatter, for at that unfortunate occasion he suddenly entered the room without making a sound. He did not rebuke us then (he did not have a definite proof that it was him we were talking of, but who else read lays openly among us?), he did not rebuke me now. Somehow that made me ashamed.
"There were some occasions when I spoke of you with less than due respect," I said sheepishly. "And even my thoughts require an apology. For nothing can be farther than the truth than my ignorant judgment that you are not valiant."
Again Faramir looked at me. "Thank you for the compliment," he said. "May I know what changed your opinion of me?"
"Oh, do you need to ask? Most of us the new recruits turned ashen-faced and threw up after the battle. But you ... you piled the hewn bodies calmly! And I dare say you killed more Orcs than most of us."
"Different men channelled their shocks differently," he said. "That I did not throw up does not prove that I am more valiant than the others. If anything, perhaps it proves that I have a stronger stomach."
"But no faint-hearted man will be able to do what you did today," I insisted.
He nodded. "I agree, and I dare say that I am not faint-hearted, though these days many people find it hard to believe that a love of lore and music does not make one's heart grow faint." For the first time I saw a glint of indignation in his eyes.
"I can see now that it does not," I said.
He smiled faintly. "If you had cared to see what I was reading, you would have been less surprised that it had not made my heart faint."
I stared at him inquiringly. He reached to his inner tunic and took out a small, worn-out book.
This man brings his book of lays with him to battle! Perhaps he brings his harp too?
He seemed to sense my bewilderment. "I know it is strange to bring a book with you to battle. But every man brings something dear to his heart."
I shifted closer to see the book. He did not proffer the book to me, and I did not ask for it. I had a strange feeling that for this man his books may be as precious as a cut sleeve or locks of dear ones to us.
The book had a black leather cover. There was the title stitched in silver, Quenta Silmarillion. I never read the complete text, but I knew the tales of those jewels. I was a son of Gondor, not some ignorant folks. The blood of Númenor ran in my veins, though my father was a far lesser lord than the Steward. My tutor had told me the tales, but it had failed to capture my attention.
Without opening the book he began to chant softly. The tune was not familiar to me, but as I listened to it I felt a great sadness, as if I had just been told that I would have to endure battles like what we had today for the rest of my life. As I listened to the words, I realized that my imagination was not far from the mark. For Faramir chanted parts of the Battles of Beleriand, and even I who knew little of lore knew that those battles went on for hundreds of years and were rather hopeless for the Elves and Men.
He sang of the death of Fingolfin, the High King of the Noldor, of how his body was broken by Morgoth and would have been thrown to wolves if the Eagles had not come. He sang of the death of Fingon, of how he was hewn, beaten into the dust, and how his banner was trodden into the mire of his blood. I winced as he sang that part. I did not remember my tutor telling me these horrible details.
Faramir stopped singing. "Perhaps it is not a good idea to tell this story after a battle," he said.
"Tell me more, but do not sing. No, do not misunderstand," I said hastily. "It is not that you do not sing well. You sing too well, you make me feel as if I were the one seeing my lord slaughtered and my land destroyed."
And so he told me the tales: of treacheries that proved deadly, of Elves and Men who endured torment in Angband, of the Nirnaeth. He recited from memory, but few times he opened the book, when he came to parts that he thought must be told precisely. "The words are just too beautiful to miss," he said. As he told the tales I realized what a fine loremaster he would have made, had we lived in a more peaceful time. He told the tales as if he was present in all those battles.
Both of us were silent for a while after he finished his recitation.
"Our prospect does look bright compared to those people in Beleriand," I said. "No wonder you were not shocked by this battle. You have seen much worse, though only in your mind."
"I never said I was not shocked," said Faramir. "And there will be a time when our prospect looks darker."
"But surely we will not be as hopeless as those people in the First Age?" I said, perhaps to still my own fears. We in Gondor, even the farmers and the herders, realized that the shadow from Mordor had grown darker with the passing years, while our forces had not grown stronger.
Faramir looked at me (he had a habit of looking closely at persons talking to him). "Oh, but they were never hopeless," he said. "There was not a cause for hope, but they had always had hope. And their hope proved true: at the end the enemy was overthrown, though many had not lived to see it.
We too have hope, though we may not live to see it fulfilled."
Perhaps this was the reason why he was so quiet and grave. Why, you too would have been grave if you had resigned yourselves to a life of perilous battles, and most likely a gruesome death in battle. And I could see that he was not wrong to have resigned himself so. In the tales, most of the Elven kings and the leaders of Men died a gruesome death. Gondor had no king, so the duty of protecting the realm even to the point of death fell to the Steward. And his sons.
"And of course we have hope," Faramir spoke again, "for we fight for the same noble reasons they did."
"I thought their battles were to reclaim some jewels?" I could not help asking.
"That was in the beginning," he answered, "but I think after some time the Eldar, save perhaps the sons of Fëanor, simply fought to protect their families, and the land they had come to love. And what of the other Elven clans, and of the Men? They had nothing to do with the silmarilli; surely they fought for their land and families?
"And that is precisely what we are doing, protecting our land and families," he ended resolutely.
In later years, when I saw many of my fellow soldiers died and I deemed our fighting futile, I often remembered his words. And usually my heart would lift up after that. The enemies might be too strong for us, our fighting and defence might be futile, but I simply refused to give up. I would not let them sack my land and take my family without fighting to the death!
But that night I pondered more on the man than on war and battles. My wonder at his hardihood in battle began to develop into great respect, and somehow I also felt great sadness. I was sad for this man, who was young as me, but had already had to shoulder the burden of duty. Every man has his own duty, of course. Yet a lord's duty is often much greater than a common soldier. If I fail to fulfil my duty, or if I am killed in battle, I thought, my family and friends will grieve, but I do not think my failure or death will affect the fate of Gondor seriously. Another knight would have taken my place and continued fighting the enemies. But it was different for Faramir and his family. Their valour, their decisions, their death, would affect Gondor greatly. For the first time I saw ruling authority in a new light. How does it feel to live such a life, to know that your every action will affect your people and yet act you must? To know that so many people may suffer because of one wrong decision you make, and yet make decisions you must? These thoughts made me respect and appreciate the Steward more. No wonder Lord Denethor was so grim, and Boromir and Faramir so grave.
As I pondered on Faramir's fate and gravity and began to see him as someone coming from another age and another land, he suddenly broke my reflection.
"Well, enough tales for tonight. They have started distributing the beer. Let us get some!" he said, almost cheerfully. I could only stare at him. This man was indeed not easy to read.
As he put back the book, I saw briefly the leather cover at the back side. And then I knew why he treasured this book so, why he brought it with him to battle though one surely will not read during a battle, though he seemed to already know the contents by heart.
For in the black leather there were stitched in silver threads two signs that every child of Gondor would recognize. At the left there was the White Tree and the seven stars. Close to it there was the swan of Dol Amroth, and on the swan small gems were stitched to make an elaborate formen tengwa. Clearly this book had once belonged to his parents; most likely it was a gift from one to the other.
Suddenly I felt a real pleasure to have this conversation with him, to catch a glimpse of this mysterious man. In the years that saw us grow from young soldiers into seasoned captains, we had not had many chances to talk again. As was customary for a Steward's son, he went to several different posts to gain a broad knowledge on the defence of Gondor. After our first battle he was soon stationed in Ithilien, then a few years in Pelargir and other fiefs, another few years in the Citadel guard, and finally back to Ithilien. I remained in Cair Andros for few years, and then was stationed in Osgiliath.
A knock in my door broke my reflection. I opened it and was greeted by one of my young soldiers.
"Some riders approaching, Captain," he reported. "Judging from the sounds and the road they took, they are men from the City."
This news did not surprise me. For few days I had expected either reinforcements or a messenger bearing the command to retreat. I was not sure which one I wished for. I did not think any reinforcements would make us able to defend Osgiliath much longer, unless the whole force of Gondor was summoned here. Denethor or Faramir, or any sane lord, would not take that course. As any reinforcements would not benefit our defence much, for a while I wished that none would be sent. But then I realized what a slaughter the impending assault would be if I and my men were left alone. Ah, well, I hoped only those really prepared to die were to be sent here. As for the command to retreat, I have to admit that there were times when I wished for it. But most of the times, I did not, for it would mean abandoning Osgiliath. I had spent most of my life in its defence. I would not abandon it unless there was a dire need to do so.
With these thoughts I went to the gate and waited there to meet the approaching riders. As the sound of hoofs grew louder, I became sure that this is a troop sent for our reinforcement, for there are too many of them to be mere messengers.
After some time we could see the riders clearly. Despite the gloom, my heart lifted as I saw who led them. I knew that even Faramir could not hope to withstand the upcoming assault, but I counted it a great profit to even die under his command.
He dismounted and I greeted him. I was astonished when I saw his face. I had been in many battles, so I had seen such expressions. It was the face of someone prepared to die but at the same time eager to live, and thus became almost indifferent to the outcome of the battle. Yet his expressions were more intense than all I had seen; he was more prepared to die, and yet more eager to live. I could see that he had been deeply anguished but there was a strange peace in his face and bearing.
He spoke nothing until we came inside and started discussing the defence. As I expected, he did not plan to make a last stand in Osgiliath. If there should be a last stand, it would be in Minas Tirith. We would try to hold the fords as long as we were able to, but we would make a retreat to the City if he judged that defence was no longer possible without sacrificing all our men.
After the council, the lieutenants went to prepare their men and we were left alone.
"I grieve with you for Captain Boromir," I said.
He seemed rather surprised, as if he had to search his memory to recall what happened to Boromir. Amid battles and impending siege, one does not have much time for personal matters. "Thank you," he finally said.
After a moment of silence he spoke again. "If we fail to hold the fords, the retreat will be perilous."
I nodded. "I know that. We may not be able to reach the City."
"I am sorry that you should be here," he said. "Your son was born only last summer, was he not, Haldan?"
I smiled as I pictured my son's face and his little fists. "Yes, I have a fair wife and a little child," I said. "But do not be sorry. Every soldier has a family, and our family understand that every battle might be our last. And as you said, it is for them that we fight."
There was a strange expression in his face, something like hurt and anger, but it faded quickly. "You still remember," he said.
"Is there any hope that we will have another talk after this battle, do you think?" I asked.
"There is little hope. But it does not matter," Faramir said, "we shall go gaily to death if it be our lot."
I looked at him, worried by his uncharacteristic remark. Did he, who had always been our beacon of hope, lose hope?
He seemed to sense my worry, for he said, "Gaily, for what we fight for is worth our life and death."
I sighed, a mix of relief and weariness. "This battle is hopeless, but we are not, are we, Faramir?"
He stood for a moment in thought before answering. "No, we are not hopeless, though we have no cause for hope."
And with that conviction we went out to take our position in the garrison.